My eyes flicked open. The clock on my bedside table read 4:15. We had decided we would do the egg hunt after quiet time.
“Mama?” Luke called from the kitchen. My dreams patterned over the sheers blowing into my room. They played with the wavy shadows cast by the window mullions. “Mama?” The screen door opened and banged shut. “Mama?”
“Don’t look!” I heard cousin Julia say to him in the backyard. “Or I’ll hide it again!”
He called my name from the basement, from the foyer, from the stairs, and then the calling stopped.
I didn’t want to be found, but I wanted to be looked for.
The day had started at 6:45 with the 4-hour leg of lamb sliding into the oven, and the crescendo of garlic softening, giving away its perfume.
A blue striped oxford for Mark, khakis for Luke, and a hand-me-down lavender dress for Diana that needed ironing. Three dozen eggs to be hard-boiled, and late-night instructions for vegan asparagus soup: Could someone please buy raw cashews, lots of basil, and vegetable broth? Clutter that had been collecting for days, whisked away minutes before our guest arrived at 11.
It was Easter and Mark’s 13th birthday. A beginning and an ending. Our son is now taller than me, his lilting voice gone, his shoulders a broad gate.
After spring break, he and his younger siblings will most likely return to school two days a week. Virginia is taking more shifts to save up for college, and Sofia has been going on camping trips in preparation for her big one.
After every pulling together is a drifting apart. When schools closed last March, we ate hot meals at noon around the big table like a farming family. Our separate ages, interests, and goals collapsed into a unity necessary to bear through the crisis.
Only scar-pink pistils remain on the weeping cherry that for one week was resplendent. But the fruiting cherry is beginning to swirl out round petals of white light. Little suns.
Life is an unrelenting tumble of grief and discovery. Losing and finding. Sugar crunching between the teeth melts on the tongue. Gifts bulging with possibility dissipate into tangles of ribbon. Blue button-downs are now crumpled in the laundry bin.
We hunt for plastic eggs, not because of the dime-store candies inside, but for the promise of finding. We want to be the one to spot the baby blue globe tucked in the car wheel, the dome of pink sunk into a tuft of spiky leaves.
To be unfound, or to be ignored, is a kind of death.
I like being invisible now, because another part of me is unspooling into the world. Through the sound of my voice, I find myself.
Under bushes, in the crooks of branches, tucked into log piles, I still like leaving eggs. Hoping someone will find them, and know me.
We watch the Super Bowl for the homemade guacamole and chicken wings that we get to eat in front of the TV once a year. I like the half-time show and the fireworks and the chance to have a feast on a Sunday night.
When I was growing up, I would watch Brady Bunch reruns on a TV that my mother covered with a Navajo rug when it was not in use. French lace hung from the windows and botanical paintings from the walls. In between scenes of Gilligan’s Island and The Six Million Dollar Man, the commercials kept me in touch with an America that bought Stretch Armstrongs and Baby Alives from Toys ‘R Us, and Ford tough trucks and Dodge Rams with 0% down. Where dads grilled and slapped each other on the back, and girls made cookies in Hasbro Easy Bake Ovens.
I never really knew if ads imitated life or life imitated ads. I was both attracted to the sharp-focus slickness, and wary of it, as if it were a supermarket cake that tasted better than it made you feel.
Last night we passed around yucca fries and ginger beer with lime in front of Super Bowl 55, where helmets were engraved with ‘End Racism’ and seats were filled with cardboard cut-outs of people who paid $100 to not be there. And in between the tackles and interceptions, we got a taste of what America is doing, or what corporate America wants us to do, this year, 2021, a year that once rang futuristic, now the second year of the pandemic:
Keep ordering grub from neighborhood restaurants via DoorDash and Uber Eats because, as Stephen Colbert said in a public service announcement for small businesses, “when all this is over, we want them to still be there.”
Get Amazon’s new sexy robot Alexa, because it’s like having a hot cyborg be your servant.
Because social distancing is still necessary, keep ‘the backyard thing going’ with Scott Miracle-Gro (and John Travolta).
Subscribe to new streaming empires like Paramount+ where you can bypass terrestrial television and order up whatever you want through the Internet, including Beavis and Butthead, The Jersey Shore, and Star Trek.
Eat a lot of the new puffy Doritos.
Win a chance to ride on a spaceship in the first all-civilian mission on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, brought to you by a tech billionaire who bought extra seats.
Pay people anywhere in the world to do digital jobs on Fiverr.com, the 5 & Dime marketplace for virtual freelance gigs.
Get out and trample trails and catch fish with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s because when everyone is feeling cooped up, “we need nature more than ever.”
Invest in the American Dream with smartphone apps like Rocket Mortgage and Robinhood, because anyone should be able to buy and sell stocks, not just the rich.
The multi-million dollar, celebrity-studded commercials were sprinkled with ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, including cameos by Pacman, the guys from Wayne’s World, and Sylvester Stallone. Each was styled like a video game or a movie made with a hand-held camera or a heart-tugging documentary featuring everyday people. Each like a cut in a multi-faceted diamond showing all the different-colored faces, all the power and glitz, celebrating and mocking our diversity, our troubled land, our beautiful powerful broken country.
I’m still not sure whether the blitz of video clips that studded the Super Bowl is a set of mirrors or a collection of mesmerizing pictures. But if you held it all in your hands, you would see an America soaring to the stars in technology, but dreaming of the past. Pandering to its celebrities, yet wanting to elevate the common man. Ashamed of its past, and trying to airbrush equality. Giving the people control of the levers, but keeping the gold in the same old places.
It’s January 1, 2021. I wake to the sound of children’s voices downstairs. The new year has begun like many others, yet the voices are a little different. My son’s voice is becoming a man’s. The teens, now silent in their beds, were once little girls.
I hear the baritone voice of my husband. This house we have made together. This life. Comets colliding together through space. Children like stardust, clinging to us until they hurtle off too.
I hear the espresso maker pumping. Ceramic plates being set down on a wooden table. I know the noisemakers and party hats are still strewn across the crumbs and candle wax. The bottle of sparkling cider we never drank has exploded in the freezer, but I don’t know this yet.
Outside my bedroom, the cat mews. It’s 9:15, I have slept in. I slide the pocket door over the slanted floorboards. He wants to be close to me. I pet him and by the second stroke, he is purring. Animals teach what I keep forgetting. How to love, how to be loved.
The sky weeps. A sad start to a year that the whole world wants to be better. Can we find a less traumatic way to live? Before the virus came, we were still dying alone in hallways, keeping a safe distance, putting masks over our true faces.
Downstairs I find the boys lining up matchbox cars under the couch. I begin chopping onions and celery. Lentils bring good luck, Enrico’s mom used to say. Little coins in a bowl, we will spoon them in, eating prosperity for lunch.
A warm world, a world just awakened. What if I started each day knowing I am a little closer to my death? What would it be like to walk through the world so tender? Not cleansing the traces of sleep, not covering the dangerous softness we had when we were born.
It was the afternoon of December 24 and the smell of toasting pecans was mixing with peppermint from the aromatherapy diffuser Virginia had set on the kitchen counter. I was arranging pink and green bon-bons on top of doilies to give away, because anything you do the night before Christmas is blessed with the most special kind of magic. The teens’ Christmas playlists of songs by Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani flooded the house with a cocktail of cheer and longing. And when I put on my coat to deliver the cookies, I detected the perfume of butternut squash roasting in the oven. Sofia was preparing pumpkin ravioli for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner.
That morning I had crossed off the last gifts on each of the children’s lists. In the wrapping room, I enclosed each one with silvery paper, attached a card, and wrote something to the person who would tug at its ribbon.
At lunch we had debated the evening activities during this holiday without grandparents — games or caroling or a Christmas show — and although it was contentious, everyone would agree because it was Christmas Eve. After dinner we would sift powdered sugar over the Italian pandoro cake we had warmed in the oven until it was soft and buttery. After the kids were tucked in, I would stay up late to hang the stockings, and then climb in to bed next to my husband, setting my alarm for early the next morning so I could light the tree, make coffee, and warm the cranberry cake before everyone came down the stairs.
The greatest paradox of Christmas is that the heart of it — the giving and receiving of gifts — is the beginning of the end. Mothers prepare for months, children wait all year, and then dawn turns to dusk on December 25 as swiftly as any other day in the relentless march of time.
After all the presents had been unwrapped and the grandparents called, I lay down and felt that familiar sadness come again. Everything had gone so well: everyone got what they wanted, no one was sick, hugs had been plenty. But when the tumbling, light-making gaiety of the holiday no longer held me in its grip, I was freed. I was lost. It’s as if I didn’t remember that night falls, parties end, youth fades.
When the sun began setting on Christmas Day, I found Virginia painting a self-portrait with her new acrylics and Sofia reading her new book by Madeline Miller. The artichokes needed to be cleaned and the potatoes scrubbed, so Virginia and I worked and talked about star constellations and Rome and the vaccine while I watched Sofia roll out the pasta and make ravioli for the first time. When it was time, I pulled out the roast and placed Sofia’s warm pecan pie at the center of the table. There were more dirty pots and pans, whisks and wooden spoons than you might find in the back room of a small restaurant, but it was better than anything we had made before.
“Christmas is almost over,” Diana said when I tucked her in that night, her eyebrows coming together as if in prayer. “I wish I was still opening the presents,” she said. Anticipation sweeter than getting what you asked for.
For me the days after Christmas are always sad. It’s a sadness that equals the joy that was held. And a sadness that tells of a dream that was always more than what was real.
But at the moment when the emptiness seemed to swallow me, I felt a glimmer. Every thing contains its opposite. Every void is an opening. This stillness is the black earth where seeds soften. This is the night where rest comes. This is the ignorance where understanding is born.
A week before Christmas, five evergreen trees were delivered to our house on a flatbed truck and brought down our driveway with a forklift. Twelve feet tall and 400 pounds each, they were to make a new hedge to screen us from an unpleasant view.
I felt uncomfortable about the ease with which this operation was completed — the former spindly trees sawed down in a couple of hours, the new trees purchased over the phone with a credit card, deep holes dug in the mud by a crew of men.
When they were all planted in a row, they looked so beautiful and I thought of decorating them with lights. But to celebrate what? Our continued fortune? The five trees, plus the one in our house encircled by a cascade of presents, reminded me where I stand in this lopsided world.
2020 showed us the devastation that has always been here, and as we watched, it got much worse. Outside the Target in Tenleytown, people in rags beg at the door. At food pantries, lines of cars wait all night for a bag of sustenance. All across America, tens of millions will not have enough to eat this winter. And yet Jeff Bezos made 90 billion dollars this year, Mark Zuckerberg made 46 billion, and Elon Musk made 68 billion, increasing his wealth by 277%. I am a part of this world. How do I walk through it?
“I am grateful for our strong house and this safe neighborhood,” I say to the kids when I tuck them into bed, thinking of the foster child who asked Santa for a coat, help with school, and running water.
Acknowledging all that I have fills me with warmth, banishing the emptiness that keeps me grasping. All the jumbled messages that criss-cross my mental space flutter down, and I can see again. I think if I continue to allow other people’s suffering into my heart again and again, I will stay human. I will act from a place of love, not defense.
When I protect myself from the world, I close off a part of myself. The part that sees and feels. I start to walk stiffly. My eyes cloud up. I become hard. A gingerbread woman in a land of my own making.
The children and I built a gingerbread village this year, bonding the panels of spiced bread with royal icing. We edged the shingles with sugar pearls, decorated the window mullions with jimmies, then added gumdrop trees and jujube flowers around a pond of sparkling sugar.
This gingerbread world — that we break apart after the holiday, that never tastes as good as it looks — reminds me to stay human. Be broken and ragged. Never too sweet, never too bitter. Always unfinished.
Please yell ‘trick or treat,’ neighbors said, so we can see you when you pick up the candy we’ve put outside our door. I wore my daughters’s old hamburger costume and pretended I was a slider to accompany a small tiger, a killer clown, a skeleton warrior, Harry Potter, and the Grim Reaper around our neighborhood. After picking up baggies of candy laid out on tables, spread on blankets atop hedges, and taped to front gates, my young companions yelled, “Thank you!” and “Happy Halloween!” and “Have a good night!” to the people they couldn’t see inside.
Over the past month, the listserv in our neighborhood of row houses, brick Colonials, and wooden farmhouses was alive with questions: would we be doing Halloween? How would houses show they were participating? And would there be any trick-or-treaters this year?
The CDC deemed traditional trick-or-treating high-risk and suggested alternative ways to celebrate — hide Halloween treats around your house, have a virtual costume contest, or do a Halloween movie night with people you live with — they offered.
But it was outdoors, I reasoned, and we would wear masks and it didn’t feel right to give up the beloved nighttime romp, so I told neighbors we would be there. One-way trick-or-treating — where people set up stations with individually bagged treats for kids to take — seemed to be the way to go, even though the CDC still considered this moderately risky.
Two days before Halloween, Luke and I ran up to Target in the rain between lunch and his 1:30 class and found him a skeleton warrior costume. Homerooms were compiling 20-second videos of kids to replace the customary costume parade around the elementary school field, and his phantom costume was too small. For her video, Diana put on the fleece costume her grandmother made and recited the suggested script into the camera, “Hi, my name is Diana and I’m a tiger. Happy Halloween!” Room mothers delivered bags with goodies and games to kids’ houses, and in Microsoft Teams parties on Friday, the kids made popsicle stick werewolves, played Kahoot and Bingo, and ate Pringles and Starbursts together.
I love how Halloween wraps up so much and holds it all — both whimsical and dark, it’s about being yourself and being freed from your usual self. It includes everybody no matter your religion, your background, your color. A holiday for all Americans that takes place on the streets, not in private homes, because it is created together.
Before we went out into the night, we placed the 50-pound pumpkins we had carved that morning and lit their orange insides and jagged smiles with a handful of candles, spread sandwich bags stuffed with Tootsie Pops and Skittles across a table on our front walk, and lit a path of moon-and-stars luminaries. We didn’t have to go out long into the neighborhood landscape of graveyard scenes, singing ghosts, silhouetted window cats, and giant spiders to collect pumpkin bucketfuls of Starburst and Whoppers, Twix and Jolly Ranchers.
There weren’t many other trick-or-treaters, but we passed a muscly little Spiderman, a family of squids, a handful of witches and princesses, and a miniature recycling truck man. The richly packed bags of candy added up so quickly, and we had to stop two times in only 45 minutes to unload.
Seeing the kids dump out their candy on the table and start wowing and trading just like they always had made me feel like everything was going to be all right in the world.
“Oooh, I got a long tootsie roll, I love these!”
“Diana’s the richest one.”
“I had to give away all my Snickers, Milky Ways, and Milk Duds, because of my braces.”
“Oh, Crunch! Crunch bars are good.”
“Is that like the tenth one you’ve eaten? Jesus!”
“Mama, another Reese’s! Do you want this one?”
“Let’s organize them like I’m doing the Skittles.”
“Whoa, wait I have four of the ‘White Mystery’ Airheads?”
“Luke, that one house always gives out Yorks.”
“Are Almond Joys actually that good?”
“Three grape Laffy Taffy’s!”
Halloween was saved. Orange string lights had been hung up, candy was lavishly offered, neighbors waved from windows, and kids got to be something ferocious or scary or magical for a night.
But I missed all the people — the faces I know and those I don’t. The good mood that pervades the air, the way the older generation always wants to see the younger one, the exchange that is made between the sweetness of candy and the sweetness of youth, this renewal of faith — in community, in tradition, in the kindness of strangers.
This year the authorities are saying not to get together for Thanksgiving. In another sign of a world turned upside-down, family celebrations are considered particularly dangerous. Some private schools here have already announced they will be transitioning online after Thanksgiving break because of the peril of people hugging each other. In Europe, where a new set of lockdowns are being enforced in response to a second wave, an infectious disease specialist even suggested postponing Christmas until next summer.
It’s hard to understand whether this virus is a deadly plague or just a new flu and maybe it’s both, but sometimes I just want to say, Are we sure it’s this big of a deal? But then I realize I can say this because I’m healthy and relatively young, and I think it won’t happen to me.
So we continue, wearing our masks, staying home, schooling in bedrooms, staying away from loved ones, meeting people over the strange and wondrous technology that makes it seem like we are not actually that far away.
This pandemic asks us to unite in sacrifice. In this life, there are not many chances to act for the whole, to be part of a grand solution. It’s not easy to hold our breath, to constrain our drives and dreams. And yet it is an honor to be included in a group that does for its members. Isn’t this the longing at the heart of our lonely striving? To feel part of something massive and wonderful? We are. It’s called the human race.